Friday, August 09, 2013

Piety and profit


I've been reading about the 17th and 18th-century sugar plantations of the Caribbean and the fabulous fortunes that were made on the backs of African slaves. It's not a pretty picture, but it's no surprise either.

Here is a young Englishman writing in 1645 from Barbados to John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The sugar planters had bought that year as many as "a thousand Negroes; and the more they buie, the better able they are buye, for in a yeare and a halfe they will earne (with gods blessing) as much as they cost."

Ah, yes. With God's blessing.

The Dutch were at that time the main suppliers of slaves to the Caribbean plantations. There had been initial qualms. Moral qualms. The Dutch West India Company had consulted theologians and decided that slave trading was immoral and should be shunned. It was a decision that lasted only until the Dutch merchants realized what handsome profits could be made in human trafficking. The Bible was invoked. Africans were "natural slaves", inheritors of the curse Noah put on Ham's son Canaan. It was all part of the natural order, God's plan.

And so began two centuries of horrific human suffering.